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W. Virginia Businessman Finances Campaigns

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W. Virginia Businessman Finances Campaigns

W. Virginia Businessman Finances Campaigns

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This may feel like corruption to some but it is entirely legal. A West Virginia coal executive has been personally financing a campaign to elect Republicans to the state legislature. Democrats hold the majority there now.

He is not on the ballot, but Don Blankenship of Massey Energy is running a statewide campaign. He's got billboards, ads, a Web site and yard signs for the candidates he supports. And that way, there are no limits to what he can spend.

West Virginia Public Broadcasting's Anna Sale reports.

ANNA SALE: Don Blankenship's company may be the largest coal producer in West Virginia, but he says he's not focusing on coal or even business this campaign season.

Mr. DON BLANKENSHIP (CEO, Massey Energy): The real issue is changing West Virginia so that the children and the people have a better life, and everybody knows that the situation we have now is for the politicians and not for the people.

SALE: That's Blankenship on a statewide radio talk show last month. He declined NPR's request to be interviewed.

It's nothing new for wealthy individuals to invest big money in politics. But the way Blankenship is doing it is a little different. His radio ads, for example, contain this straightforward provision:

(Soundbite of political ad)

Unidentified Man: Paid for by Don Blankenship. Not authorized by any political party, candidate or candidate's committee.

SALE: He's using these ads, billboards and yard signs to target Democratic incumbents in the House of Delegates. He's also hired field organizers who are going door-to-door talking about broad themes like protecting kids and creating jobs, along with hot button issues like the state sales tax on food, penalties for drunk driving, abortion and gay marriage.

So far, Blankenship spent more than $309,000 in support of 41 Republican candidates in 28 districts across the state, according to his latest campaign finance filings. But he says he'll spend a lot more if necessary.

Mr. BLANKENSHIP: The exact number is not the important thing; the important thing is whether West Virginians get an improved state. And whether it's two million, three million, four million, that's not what matters.

Mr. NICK CASEY (Chairman, Democratic Party, West Virginia): Well, what he's done is he's basically usurped the Republican Party in West Virginia.

SALE: Nick Casey is the chairman of the state Democratic Party. He says Blankenship's focus on jobs and children is a smokescreen.

Mr. CASEY: We as the Democrats feel it's essential to let the electorate understand that they shouldn't be fooled that this is for the sake of the kids. This is for the sake of Don Blankenship's agenda.

SALE: That agenda, Casey suggests, may really be decreasing environmental and safety regulations to improve the bottom line of Blankenship's coal company. Blankenship, who grew up in the state's southern coal fields, admits he wants more business-friendly laws. But he says he's not doing this for himself.

Mr. BLANKENSHIP: You know, I don't hope to gain anything personally out of it. I don't need anything. I needed help years and years ago like so many people in West Virginia do now. But I really don't need any help.

SALE: It's not the first time Blankenship's been involved in the state election. He donated more than two million dollars to a 527 group called And For the Sake of the Kids in 2004. That group targeted the Democratic incumbent on the state Supreme Court who lost to a Republican newcomer.

After that election, the state legislature passed campaign finance reform. It capped 527 donations to $1,000 per election cycle. Gary Abernathy is a Republican political consultant in West Virginia. He says the new law only strengthens Blankenship.

Mr. GARY ABERNATHY (Executive Director, Abernathy Strategies): All they've done is strengthen the ability of a person with a lot of resources at hand to come in and have a voice in the process and hurt the ability of people to collect contributions from others and so on and have a voice that way.

SALE: How voters will respond is difficult to predict. West Virginia's a bit of a political anomaly. It went to President Bush in both 2000 and 2004. But the state's Democratic governor, Joe Manchin, has a 73 percent approval rating. And Democrats have controlled the legislature since the 1930s. Whether Blankenship can change that this year, Abernathy says, is anybody's guess.

Mr. ABERNATHY: I'm as curious as everybody else to see what it means on Election Day. This is almost like kind of a contained little political experiment going on right here in West Virginia.

SALE: For NPR News, I'm Anna Sale in Charleston, West Virginia.

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